Charleston, South Carolina, a densely developed peninsula surrounded by creeks and rivers that pour into the ocean, has reached the point where sea level rise flooding and the threat of ever more powerful storm surges threatens its very existence. The title of a recent article in The Post and Courier sums up the situation quite succinctly: “Charleston faces an existential choice: Wall off the rising ocean or retreat to higher ground.”
As the city celebrates its 350th year, the Army Corps of Engineers released a proposed plan to see it through 50 more. The Corps is calling for the construction of an 8-mile protective wall around the core peninsula along with pumps to help keep the city dry. Additional infrastructure improvements, such as raising flood-prone roads and clearing spaces to store water after heavy rains, may also be needed. The project would cost an estimated $1.75 billion with locals responsible for $600 million of the tab.
As with many other cities considering massive projects to protect valuable coastal real estate from inundation, funding for the proposed project is a major sticking point that has only been made worse by the budget-busting coronavirus pandemic.
Some residents see Charleston’s historic value and ability to draw 7 million tourists a year as reason alone to mount an aggressive effort to save it. They’re concerned that if they don’t get started soon, flooding will diminish the city’s value.
On the other hand, The Post and Courier article by Chloe Johnson hints that some residents exhausted from past floods are considering moving out. And at least one academic worries that the wall will give people a false sense of security that might result in increased investment in the peninsula. Andy Keeler, a climate expert at Eastern Carolina University, told the paper that this can result in a more painful economic collapse when sea level rise and storm surges eventually defeat the man-made defenses.
The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that without the wall and other improvements, Charleston will lose half of its historic structures to flooding by 2075. Real estate buyers and owners in Charleston and other coastal cities and towns confronting similar challenges need to consider the costs and benefits of proposals to rein in the water — and the potential that projects will never be built — when deciding how to react to the growing threat of sea level rise flooding and more powerful storm surges.
South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster has proposed the creation of a chief resiliency office position at the highest levels of state government to help coordinate the state’s response to extreme storms and sea level rise flooding.
According to a report in The Post and Courier, the resiliency chief would develop plans to seek federal funding for flood mitigation projects, control development in vulnerable areas, and improve how the state responds to disasters.
If the new position is approved, South Carolina would join Florida and North Carolina — states long considered resistant to discussing climate change and sea level rise flooding — in appointing a high level official to deal with the problems created by global warming.
The South Carolina climate change czar would also be responsible for collecting the latest climate change information and relaying it to government officials and the public. Local government officials have told the state they need money for seawalls, drainage improvements and other projects to hold back rising tides. Charleston alone estimates it needs $2 billion to protect residents and real estate.
It’s unclear at this point whether Gov. McMaster’s proposal will get the support it needs from the state legislature. Meanwhile, sea level continues to rise.
The more you study climate change and sea level rise, the more you realize that they’re political issues as well as practical, environmental threats. This point was hit home yet again in a New York Times report that found several conservative states at great risk from rising seas applied for federal funding to increase their defenses against flooding without actually using the terms “climate change” or “sea level rise.”
Texas produced a 306 page application for a share of $16 billion Congress set aside in 2018 to help states deal with climate change impacts without a single mention of climate change or sea level rise. South Carolina didn’t use the terms in its application, while Louisiana didn’t mention “climate change” until the last page of its proposal.
While it’s commendable that the states are actually taking steps to prepare for more intense heat and flooding due to global warming (another divisive term, I know), their reluctance to be frank about the issue and use the terms “climate change” and “sea level rise flooding”, are a tad cowardly. The public in their states deserve the truth, even if they’ve been conditioned to deny it. Real leaders would give them the education about climate change that they clearly need to make informed decisions that just might help them to participate in the process of finding solutions and protect their own financial futures.
Ultimately, the absence of the terms “climate change” and “sea level rise” from the funding proposals is a moot point. The atmosphere will continue heating up and the seas will continue to rise and flood valuable real estate regardless of climate change denialists’ inability to utter them.